Pioneer cover

From the press release: From the moment he is handed a possibility of making the first alien contact, Saunders Maxwell decides he will do it, even if doing so takes him through hell and back.

 

Unfortunately, that is exactly where that journey takes him.

 

The vision that Zimmerman paints of vibrant human colonies on the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, and beyond, indomitably fighting the harsh lifeless environment of space to build new societies, captures perfectly the emerging space race we see today.


He also captures in Pioneer the heart of the human spirit, willing to push forward no matter the odds, no matter the cost. It is that spirit that will make the exploration of the heavens possible, forever, into the never-ending future.

 

Available everywhere for $3.99 (before discount) at amazon, Barnes & Noble, all ebook vendors, or direct from the ebook publisher, ebookit.

 

Scroll down for new updates.

GAO warns of more Webb delays

The race to the bottom between Webb and SLS continues! A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report warns that there is high likelihood that NASA will not meet its March 2021 target launch date for the James Webb Space Telescope.

The report noted that the program performed an updated joint confidence level analysis of the mission’s cost in schedule in October. “Because of schedule delays resulting from technical challenges coupled with remaining risks faced by the project, the analysis assessed only a 12 percent confidence level for the project’s ability to meet the March 2021 launch readiness date,” the report stated.

NASA missions usually set cost and schedule estimates at the 70% confidence level. Using that metric, the launch would likely take place in July 2021, a delay of four months, according to the report.

Webb is now more than a decade behind schedule, with its budget ballooning from $1 billion to just under $10 billion. These facts essentially wiped out almost all new astronomical projects in the 2010s.

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Voyager 2 in safe mode

After forty years of operation and successfully leaving the solar system, Voyager 2 has experienced a technical issue that caused it to go into safe mode.

According to NASA, Voyager 2 failed to perform a scheduled maneuver on Saturday January 25. The craft was due to rotate a full 360 degrees to calibrate its magnetic field instrument, but for some reason the action was delayed. That in turn meant that two particularly power-hungry systems were left running at the same time, which overdrew the available power supply.

…As of January 28, the team managed to turn off one of those high-power systems, allowing some scientific instruments to be switched back on. Engineers are currently analyzing data to figure out the status of the rest of the systems, to work out how to turn off the second one and return the craft to normal operations.

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Genesis cover

On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.

 
The ebook is available everywhere for $5.99 (before discount) at amazon, Barnes & Noble, all ebook vendors, or direct from my ebook publisher, ebookit.

 
The audiobook is also available at all these vendors, and is also free with a 30-day trial membership to Audible.
 

"Not simply about one mission, [Genesis] is also the history of America's quest for the moon... Zimmerman has done a masterful job of tying disparate events together into a solid account of one of America's greatest human triumphs." --San Antonio Express-News

SpaceX launches another 60 Starlink satellites

Capitalism in space: SpaceX today successfully launched another 60 Starlink satellites, bringing the size of the constellation to 240 satellites.

They also successfully recovered the first stage, which was making its third flight. They also caught one of the two fairing halves in the ship net, recovering the second half out of the ocean.

The leaders in the 2020 launch race:

3 China
2 SpaceX
1 Arianespace (Europe)

The launch replay is embedded below the fold.
» Read more

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Readers!
 
For many reasons, mostly political but partly ethical, I do not use Google, Facebook, Twitter. They practice corrupt business policies, while targeting conservative websites for censoring, facts repeatedly confirmed by news stories and by my sense that Facebook has taken action to prevent my readers from recommending Behind the Black to their friends.
 
Thus, I must have your direct support to keep this webpage alive. Not only does the money pay the bills, it gives me the freedom to speak honestly about science and culture, instead of being forced to write it as others demand.

 

Please consider donating by giving either a one-time contribution or a regular subscription, as outlined in the tip jar below.


 

Regular readers can support Behind The Black with a contribution via paypal:

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If Paypal doesn't work for you, you can support Behind The Black directly by sending your donation by check, payable to Robert Zimmerman, to
 
Behind The Black
c/o Robert Zimmerman
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Cortaro, AZ 85652

 

You can also support me by buying one of my books, as noted in the boxes interspersed throughout the webpage. And if you buy the books through the ebookit links, I get a larger cut and I get it sooner.

Another two hard radical Sanders campaign field workers

Project Veritas has released its fourth expose on the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, once again showing us two more radical hard left campaign workers, both field organizers, who seem willing to accept the idea of “destroying property” and using force to obtain power, regardless of whether Sanders is elected.

I’ve embedded the video below the fold. Unlike the radicals exposed in the earlier videos, I find these guys more absurd and intellectually empty than frightening. I do not see how they will be able to achieve a violent overthrow of the American people, especially since their opposition of Trump supporters are also avid and trained gun users who will not take kindly to any attempts to directly oppress them with force.

Regardless, these two Sanders workers do illustrate well the empty-headed policy ideas of Sanders and his campaign. If you jump to 12:00 minutes into the video, watch how Mason Baird struggles when asked how Bernie Sanders is going to carry out his policy. As he admits,

Like, we we get really nuts and bolts stuff, that’s what I really struggle with thinking about is — My answer is kind of like vague. It’s just like the, you know, having the movement and having, and snowballing that movement, and, and thinking more explicit, maybe thinking less about mobilize, or thinking about persuading people and more about mobilizing the people we already have.

He goes on to imply that the use of force against any one who opposes them would likely be the best approach, but he certainly seems very unclear how he and his ilk could do that.

I repeat and beg my Democratic readers, watch and learn. The Democratic Party is not the party you think it is. It is instead becoming a carbon copy of the Communist Party of the early Soviet Union, designed with only one purpose in mind, obtaining power. And we know this by the reaction of the Sanders campaign to these videos, which is to do nothing, to poo-poo what they reveal, and to fire no one.

» Read more

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Inexplicable ridges on Mars

Inexplicable ridges on Mars
Click for full image.

Don’t ask me to explain the geology on today’s cool image, rotated, cropped and reduced above. Taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on August 16, 2019, the image’s uncaptioned website merely calls these “Convergent and Overlapping Narrow Curved Ridges.”

I don’t know why the sand in the hollows appears light blue, or even if it is sand. I don’t know what created the ridges, or why they seem to overlap each other randomly, or why they seem to peter out to the south.

I am sure there are planetary scientists out there who have theories that might explain these features. I also know that they would forgive me if I remained skeptical of those theories. This geology is a puzzle.

Hellas Basin, the basement of Mars

The location of these ridges is in the southeast corner of Hellas Basin, which I like to call the basement of Mars as it is the equivalent of the United States’ Death Valley, having the lowest relative elevation on the planet. As I have noted previously, the geology in this basin can be very strange. To my eye it often invokes a feeling that we are looking at Mars’s “uttermost foundation of stone” (to quote Tolkien), frozen lava that flowed in many ways and then froze in strange patterns.

Or not. Your guess is as good as mine.

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Leaving Earth cover

In March I obtained from my former publisher the last 30 copies of the now out-of-print hardback of Leaving Earth. I quickly sold 10, and with only 20 left in stock I am raising the price. To get your own autographed copy of this rare collector's item please send a $75 check (includes $5 shipping) payable to Robert Zimmerman to
 

Behind The Black, c/o Robert Zimmerman
P.O.Box 1262
Cortaro, AZ 85652
 

I will likely raise the price again when only ten books are left, so buy them now at this price while you still can!


  Also available as an inexpensive ebook!
 

Leaving Earth: Space Stations, Rival Superpowers, and the Quest for Interplanetary Travel, is now available as an ebook everywhere for only $3.99 (before discount) at amazon, Barnes & Noble, all ebook vendors, or direct from my ebook publisher, ebookit.

 


Winner of the 2003 Eugene M. Emme Award of the American Astronautical Society.

"Leaving Earth is one of the best and certainly the most comprehensive summary of our drive into space that I have ever read. It will be invaluable to future scholars because it will tell them how the next chapter of human history opened." -- Arthur C. Clarke

Two abandoned satellites might collide today

According to a company that monitors objects in low Earth orbit, two abandoned satellites might actually collide today.

The two satellites, NASA’s IRAS space telescope and the experimental U.S. Naval Research Lab satellite GGSE-4, will swing past each other at 6:39 p.m. EST at an altitude of about 559 miles in the skies above Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. They’ll be hurtling along their orbit at a relative velocity of about 32,880 miles per hour and could swing within 50 feet of each other.

LeoLabs noted that, at the time of the tweet, the odds of a collision were about 1 in 100 and said the relatively large size of the two spacecraft increased the risk of a collision.

IRAS was the first infrared space telescope ever launched, and operated for ten months after its launch in 1983. The other spacecraft was a National Security Agency test satellite of surveillance technology.

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More evidence Iran is about to launch a satellite

Images from space of Iran’s rocket launch site appear to confirm their recent claims that they are about to launch a satellite, showing the kind of activity that usually presages a launch.

Satellite photos taken on January 26 by the San Francisco-based commercial company Planet Labs Inc. and shared via the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey show work at a launchpad at the Imam Khomeini Space Center.

The images also show more cars and activity at a facility at the space center, located about 230 kilometers southeast of Tehran. “It looks pretty clearly to us like Iran is going to try and put a satellite into space,” Jeffrey Lewis, a professor at the Middlebury Institute who tracks Iran’s space program.

If they do launch and successfully get their satellite into orbit, it will be their first such success since 2015.

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More evidence of ample shallow ice in Martian mid-latitudes

In a new paper released this week, scientists using instruments on both Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have found more evidence that there is a large amount of widespread ice close to the surface in the Martian mid-latitudes. As the scientists note in their abstract:

We show that water ice is present sometimes just a few centimeters below the surface, at locations where future landing is realistic, under mobile material that could easily be moved around. This ice could be exploited on‐site for drinking water, breathable oxygen, etc., at a much lower cost than if brought from Earth.

They deduced this by looking at how that ice would change the seasonal temperatures in the atmosphere directly above. Cooler regions suggested more ice close to the surface, while warmer regions suggested either no ice or ice deep below the surface. While this approach is indirect and did not directly detect ice, their conclusions match perfectly with all previous research. Below is a global map of Mars taken from the paper’s the supplementary material [docx file], reduced and annotated by me, showing the regions that seem to have ample shallow ice. Regular readers of Behind the Black will instantly recognize these locations.
» Read more

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NASA picks Axiom to build three private commercial modules on ISS

Capitalism in space: NASA today picked the new space station company Axiom to build three modules to ISS, designed to operate as a private commercial operation.

The first segment launch is targeted for 2024. The three segments will include a node with multi-ports, a crew module, and a research module, and will be the “hotel” for private tourists that Axiom hopes to send to ISS two or three times per year. The entire section will also be designed to eventually separate from ISS when that station is retired and operate, with more additions, as an independent station.

This decision did not include the actual contract, only the choice of company to build this new section of ISS. Later negotiations will determine the fixed price amount that NASA will pay.

Why did NASA pick Axiom, which has not yet launched anything, and bypass Bigelow, which has launched two independent test modules and one that has been attached to ISS and working successfully now for several years? This quote explains:

Although Axiom is a relatively young company, having been formed only four years ago in 2016, there is no lack of experience within the company’s ranks.

Axiom’s Co-founder and CEO is Micheal Suffredini, who formerly worked at the Johnson Space Centre (JSC) as the program manager for the International Space Station project.

The Axiom team also includes Michael Lopez-Alegria, a former NASA astronaut who flew on the space shuttle three times and commanded the 14th Expedition to the ISS, as well as former shuttle commanders Brent Jett and Charles Bolden, the latter of whom served as NASA’s 12th administrator from 2009 to 2017.

Axiom is also working alongside several companies with extensive experience with the ISS program, this includes Boeing, who has made several of the modules that make up the US Segment, including Node 1 and the US Laboratory Module. Axiom is also working alongside Thales Alenia Space, Maxar Technologies and Intuitive Machines to get this project off the ground. [emphasis mine]

In other words, it appears it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. This is not to say that the individuals and companies listed above do not know much, but that the company’s real experience with building private modules is lacking. Boeing has built NASA’s modules, but those were for the government and were therefore costly. I have grave doubts they could do this inexpensively, though I could be wrong.

The key will be whether they aim to make their profits from their commercial customers, or use NASA (and the federal government) as their cash cow. The track record of most of Axiom’s partners suggests the latter. For example, Bigelow built and launched its BEAM module to ISS for $17 million, and got it done in three years. We don’t yet know the cost of Axiom’s modules, but their target build-time is already longer, at four to five years

Don’t get me wrong. I applaud NASA’s approach here. They are ceding ownership and construction to a private company, and allowing its work to be commercialized for profit, something that NASA routinely opposed for decades. I just worry that the company it has chosen will be not up to the task, and is not focused on making those profits.

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Chris Pritchard – World way: The City of LAX

An evening pause: From the website:

The impetus for “WORLD WAY: The City of LAX” was born in 2013 as I sat on a rooftop in El Segundo, waiting for a shoot to begin and looking out over LA. The incoming planes looked like a highway, evenly spaced and spread across multiple lanes. This led my eye to the end of their path – LAX. I realized I had a fully unobstructed view of the airport, and immediately started capturing timelapses of it. I became fascinated with the many layers of movement that were visible – planes taking off and landing, planes taxiing, ground support equipment moving on the ramp and throughout the airport, passenger vehicles on World Way, passengers on foot outside and inside the airport – all moving at their own unique pace. It made me realize that LAX is a city unto itself, with so many moving pieces and individual people all doing their part to keep it moving.

Hat tip Edward Thelen.

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The beginning of chaos on Mars

The beginning of a chaos canyon
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The photo on the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on October 7, 2019. In one image it encapsulates the process that forms one of the more intriguing and major Martian geological features, dubbed chaos terrain.

Chaos terrain is typically a collection of mesas separated by straight-lined canyons. It is found in many places on Mars, most often in the transition zone between the southern highlands and the northern lowlands where an intermittent ocean might once have existed. It is believed to form by erosion, possibly caused by either flowing water or ice, moving along fault lines. As the erosion widened the faults, they turned into canyons separating closely packed mesas. With time, the canyons widened and the mesas turned into a collection of hills.

This image shows the beginning of this process. It is centered on a fault line running from south to north. In the south all we can see is the fault expressing itself as a very shallow small depression in the plains. As we move north the depression widens and deepens. The material inside the depression near the top of the photo could very well be a buried inactive ice glacier. Several million years ago, when the inclination of Mars was much higher and the mid-latitudes were much colder than the poles, the water ice at the poles was sublimating from the poles to those mid-latitudes where it fell as snow. At that time this glacier was likely active, helping to grind out this canyon.

The image was taken at the south border of a chaos region dubbed Nilosytis Mensae, as shown by the overview maps below.
» Read more

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House authorization bill focuses on pork

A new House authorization bill for NASA would shift the agency’s focus from commercial space and getting to the Moon to building Artemis and Gateway and going to Mars.

A NASA authorization bill released by the House Science Committee Friday proposes major changes to the direction of the agency’s human spaceflight programs, with a goal to land crews on the moon by 2028, not the 2024 schedule set by the Trump administration.

The House version for NASA Authorization Act of 2020, which would set NASA policy if enacted into law, calls for the space agency to develop plans for sending a crewed mission to orbit Mars by 2033.

The bipartisan legislation would appear to stand in the way of any plans to build a permanently-occupied moon base or develop methods to mine water ice inside craters at the moon’s poles, which could be converted into breathing oxygen, drinking water and rocket fuel.

The bill, not yet approved by the House committee despite support from the committee heads from both parties, differs significantly from the Senate bill, which places more emphasize on having NASA use private enterprise. For example while the Senate bill calls for NASA to hire privately-built lunar landers, the House bill wants NASA to build the landers entirely.

Read the whole article. The House bill could I think also be labeled the “Orange Man Bad for Space” bill, as it clearly seems designed to block almost all of the Trump initiatives to encourage private space and get a manned mission to the Moon sooner rather than later.

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Iran to launch two satellites soon?

According to one Iranian official’s twitter feed, Iran has completed construction on two new satellites, both of which will launch “soon.”

The article also suggests that four more satellites are is being developed.

Such announcements from Iran must be treated with great skepticism, as they have been making them for years with little actual follow-up. In fact, the last time Iran launched a satellite into orbit successfully was 2015.

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Boeing flies 777X for the first time

On January 25 Boeing successfully flew its new giant 777X commercial airplane for the first time.

Originally unveiled at the 2013 Dubai Airshow, the 777X is an advance on the engineering and interior innovations of the 777 and 787 Dreamliner. The twin-engine jetliner is available in the 777-8 and 777-9 variants with ranges of up to 8,700 nm (10,012 mi/16,110 km) and seating between 350 and 425 passengers.

The key innovation of the 777X is its lightweight wing design based on a composite spar made from over 400 miles (644 km) of carbon tape cured in a specially-built autoclave. This allows the aircraft to have a wingspan of 235 ft (72 m) – a span so long that the wings have folding sections at their tips so the plane can fit in conventional boarding gates.

The test flight lasted just under four hours. The pictures at the link illustrate clearly emphasize the lightweight wings, which look tiny compared to the two engines.

Boeing desperately needs a success, considering the string of problems almost all of its major projects have been having recently.

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Coronavirus update

Link here. In the past five days the number of people known to be infected has grown from about 450 to now more than 1,400, with deaths rising to 41 total. (The rate of deaths to those infected however has dropped, from 5% to less than 1%.) Also, a very small number of cases have been found in other countries throughout the world, limited so far to people who had recently been in the region of China with the most infections.

How serious is this epidemic? The rise in cases in only a week is concerning for sure, as very quickly the numbers are beginning to match the SARS epidemic in 2002-2003, which took a year to get to 8,000 infected. The so-far low death rate however suggests the disease is manageable.

The situation in China however is very serious. They have locked down regions with populations in the multi-millions, and the number of cases might soon strain their health system. Worse, we do not know if the numbers the non-transparent communist government is posting are accurate. There have been numerous rumors all week that the infection count is far higher than what has been publicly revealed. This could be true, or not. The rumors exist because no one trusts the communists to allow the truth to be published.

At the moment it still appears to me that, at least outside of China, the situation is under control. Whether it remains that way we can only wait and see.

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Airbus gets ESA as customer for its ISS commercial platform

Capitalism in space: Airbus has signed up the European Space Agency (ESA) to use its as-yet unlaunched ISS Bartolomeo module as an experimental platform.

The Bartolomeo platform – named after Christopher Columbus’ younger brother – is currently in the final stage of launch preparation at Airbus in Bremen and is scheduled for launch to the ISS in March 2020. Bartolomeo is developed on a commercial basis by Airbus using its own investment funds and will be operated in cooperation with ESA.

The platform can accommodate up to 12 different experiment modules, supplying them with power and providing data transmission to Earth. Bartolomeo is suitable for many different experiments. Due to the unique position of the platform with a direct view of Earth from 400 kilometres, Earth observation including trace gas measurements or CO2 monitoring of the atmosphere are possible, with data useful for climate protection or for use by private data service providers.

This is the European effort to duplicate the slow commercialization of ISS that is also taking place in the U.S., with more and more of the payloads and operating platforms on the station being developed, owned, and operated not by NASA but by private companies.

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The Democratic Party: Elections are bad, let’s end them!

So, have you all been closely hooked to your televisions or computers, watching nonstop the impeachment trial against President Donald Trump going on in the Senate this week?

Yup, me neither. No one in their right mind and with the freedom to avoid it would spend eight-plus hours each day watching this obscene impeachment effort by the out-of-control and power-hungry Democratic Party. They have nothing to offer but lies and policy differences, hardly sufficient to justify their campaign to remove a duly elected president, merely because he has the audacity to oppose them. Better to read summaries and commentary afterward.

In fact, the ratings of the impeachment trail in the Senate bear this out. On the first day the ratings showed a 20% decline in viewership from the numbers seen during the House impeachment vote, from 13.8 million to 11 million. This trend continued on day two, when the ratings plunged another 19% to 8.9 million.

Nor is this drop in ratings surprising. Everyone knows that there no chance Trump will be convicted by a two-thirds majority of the Senate. Not only are the charges against him bogus, the Democratic managers appointed by the House to argue their case in the Senate have done a terrible job making their case. Instead, they have offended the few Republican senators who might have considered conviction. Both Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) were considered unreliable Republicans, willing to listen to the Democrats’ line of reasoning, with the possibility that they might even have voted against Trump.

Instead, manager and congressman Jerry Nadler (D-New York) offended both deeply with his accusations that anyone who voted for blocking the introduction of new witnesses was participating in a “cover-up.”
» Read more

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NASA picks science payloads for 1st two unmanned private lunar landers

Capitalism in space: NASA has chosen the science instruments that will be put on the 1st two unmanned privately built lunar landers aimed at arriving on the Moon in 2021.

Two experiments will be flown on both landers. The Astrobotic lander gets an additional nine instruments, while Intuitive Machines gets three.

The most interesting tidbit from the press release is that NASA hopes to make “about two deliveries of scientific and research payloads to the Moon per year starting in 2021.” Seems overly optimistic to me, though in the long run the approach makes sense for NASA. These landers are relatively small and cheap, so the cost to fly a lot of them is not exorbitant. Under this arrangement, if one fails you simply figure out why and quickly fly another.

For this new American industry the approach also works. The companies will own the designs, so soon they will be able to market this technology to other customers, at what is historically record low prices for such a mission. The result is likely going to be the arrival of a swarm of new customers.

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SpaceX wins first new launch contract in 2020

Capitalism in space:The Egyptian communcications satellite company Nilsat this week announced that it has awarded SpaceX the launch contract for its next satellite.

This was SpaceX’s first contract award in 2020.

The article goes into great detail about SpaceX’s present launch manifest, which according to the company has contracts for future launches equaling $12 billion.

Based on public info, SpaceX has roughly 55 customer launches on its manifest. The company also intends to launch as many as 24 dedicated Starlink missions this year and will need at least another 40-50 on top of that to complete the first phase of the broadband internet satellite constellation (~4400 spacecraft). Meanwhile, SpaceX has won at least nine separate launch contracts – two Falcon Heavy missions and seven Falcon 9s – in the last 18 months, but has launched 22 customer payloads in the same period.

In fewer words, SpaceX is effectively launching its existing commercial missions much faster than it’s receiving new contracts. In 2019, for example, the company launched only 11 commercial missions – 13 total including two internal 60-satellite Starlink launches. SpaceX launched 21 times in 2018, a record the company initially hoped to equal or even beat last year, but – for the first time ever – the launch company was consistently ready before its customers were.

It appears SpaceX intends to pick up any slack in launch contracts with Starlink satellite launches, which once in orbit are another major income source for the company.

Overall, it seems to me that SpaceX is quite awash with capital, which reinforces their decision to not take government money to develop Starship. Using their own capital they are free to build as they see fit, with no one from the government who knows less than they do looking over their shoulder and kibitzing.

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Launch abort data suggests Dragon performed “flawlessly”

A preliminary review of the data gathered during SpaceX’s launch abort test on January 19, 2020 suggests the system performed “flawlessly”.

The Crew Dragon began its launch escape maneuver at 10:31:25 a.m. EST (1531:25 GMT) — initiated by a low setting of an on-board acceleration trigger — when the Falcon 9 was traveling at a velocity around 1,200 mph (536 meters per second), according to SpaceX.

Eight SuperDraco thrusters immediately pressurized and ignited as the Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage engines were commanded to shut down as part of the abort sequence. The escape engines on the Crew Dragon produced nearly 130,000 pounds of thrust at full power. The SuperDracos performed flawlessly, SpaceX said, accelerating the capsule away from the top of the Falcon 9 at a peak acceleration of 3.3Gs. The SuperDracos accelerated the spacecraft from about 1,200 mph up to more than 1,500 mph (about 675 meters per second) in approximately seven seconds, according to SpaceX.

At this point it appears the only reason the first manned launch might be delayed a bit is if NASA decides to turn it into a long duration mission, requiring new training for the crew.

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Martian pimples

Pimples on Mars!
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, is one of those terrain sample images the science team of the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) takes periodically when they have a gap in their observation schedule with no specific requests for images of the terrain below. Still, they need to use the camera regularly to keep its temperature maintained, so they then take a somewhat random picture over that terrain, based partly on information from lower resolution images but without a strong sense of what they will find.

In this case, they found what I dub pimples, raised mounds with small holes at their peaks. The image, taken on November 30, 2019, is located is in the northern lowlands, at a latitude (45 degrees) where subsurface ice is possible. Thus, we could be looking at water ice volcanoes.

Very few high resolution images have been taken of this area, with no others close by. Thus, the overall context of these mounds is hard to gauge. They could be widespread, or very localized.

The unknowns here and general lack of research suggests this location and these mounds are ripe research for some postdoc student interested in planetary geology.

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Russia again delays launch of Nauka module for ISS

Russia yesterday announced that it will once again delay the launch of its Nauka module for ISS due to “additional adjustments that should be carried out due to the use of original propellant tanks.”

The TASS article did not explain what those adjustments will be, though it did outline some of the sad history of Nauka, which Russia had begun construction in 1995, a quarter of a century ago.

Earlier, Roscosmos Director General Dmitry Rogozi said the research module’s original propellant tanks, manufactured about 18 years ago, could be replaced with those from the Fregat booster. However, later it was decided to send the module to the ISS with its original tanks.

The construction of the Nauka module began in 1995. Russia initially planned to launch the Nauka lab to the ISS as a back-up of the Zarya compartment (the station’s first module that continues its flight as part of the orbital outpost) but the launch was numerously delayed. In 2013, the Nauka module was sent to the Khrunichev Space Center after metal chips were found in its fuel system.

Right now they are saying it will probably launch early in 2021, not late in 2020 as previously announced.

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OSIRIS-REx completes close fly-over of Bennu touchdown site

OSIRIS-REx has successfully completed the first of a series of increasingly closer fly-overs of its primary sample grab sites on the asteroid Bennu.

The spacecraft got as close as about 2,000 feet in order to take more high resolution images of the Nightingale landing site where they hope in August to do a touch-and-go sample grab.

A similar flyover of the backup sample collection site, Osprey, is scheduled for Feb. 11. Even lower flybys will be performed later this spring – Mar. 3 for Nightingale and May 26 for Osprey – as part of the mission’s Reconnaissance C phase activities. The spacecraft will perform these two flyovers at an altitude of 820 feet (250 m), which will be the closest it has ever flown over asteroid Bennu’s surface.

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Fire during Firefly rocket engine test forces evacuations

A fire during an engine test of Firefly Aerospace’s Alpha rocket yesterday has forced local officials to evacuate nearby residents for a short time.

Earlier Wednesday, Firefly Aerospace tweeted an image of a first stage for the company’s Alpha rocket on a vertical test stand at the Briggs facility. In the tweet, Firefly wrote that teams were loading liquid oxygen into a test version of the company’s Alpha booster in preparation for the first hotfire qualification test of the rocket’s first stage.

Firefly later deleted the tweet after local authorities responded to reports of an “explosion” at the test facility in Central Texas, and ordered the closure of roads in the area and the evacuation of nearby residents.

Officials later clarified that no explosion occurred. Tom Markusic, Firefly’s CEO, told KXAN — the NBC television affiliate in Austin — that a fuel leak resulted in a small fire on the test stand. [emphasis mine]

This is not good for the company’s planned launch schedule, which presently calls for the first operational flight in 2020.

At the same time, the company announced the signing of a contract today with a company that will act as a coordinator scheduling multiple smallsat customers on the rocket.

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